Made in Britain: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
Every year there is one film thrown out by the film industry that is on the receiving end of a huge amount of critical nut stroking. The critics get down there, and they, well, fondle those balls. Invariably, and this is the point of this introduction, the film is fundamentally not worth the testicular massage that it is receiving. Don’t get me wrong, they are always, without exception, well acted, well shot, good looking films, but, and this is the important but, they are narcolepsy inducing. Last year, for example, The Black Swan received more handjob’s than Bill Clinton, yet actually wasn’t that good. This year, that film is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Disclaimer in advance: I have both read the novel and seen the epic British TV series. I was, I have to say hugely sceptical about this adaptation, as I doubted that anyone could step into Alec Guinness’ shoes as George Smiley. Before I start shredding this film, I want to say straight up, that with one exception, the acting here is downright superb, particularly Gary Oldman in the Smiley role. Goes to show what I know.
So, take that warning in advance, I clearly know nothing about film.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is based on the hugely influential John Le Carré novel. In this celebrated book we follow retired spy Smiley as he attempts to find the mole at the top of the British Secret Service. He has four plausible candidates, codenamed Tinker, Tailer, Soldier and Poor man.
Basically, if ever you doubted that espionage was essentially boring then this is the film to dissuade you. The problem here is that Smiley is playing a long term game of chess with Soviet master Karla. In practise what this works out as is a lot of, well, nothing. The camera lingers lovingly on Smiley (Gary Oldman) as he looks at old files and gradually pieces 2 and 2 together. The pieces fall in to place, the characters are shuffled but nothing basically happens. It’s excruciatingly boring, yet strangely compelling if, and this is the important if, you don’t know who the mole is.
Unfortunately, I did know who the mole is. Therefore, what I’m watching is a whole lot of exquisitely shot nothing. The pace here isn’t so much slow as glacial. It sparks to life briefly with Rick Tarr’s (Tom Hardy) abortive mission in Istanbul, and Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) attempting to steal the duty log from “The Circus”, but this is frankly lost under the morass of fuck all happening.
Against this miasma of boredom stands the actors. Oldman is fucking brilliant as Smiley. He’s got a calculating and predatory presence that reeks of spy master. Cumberbatch is also superb, and Hardy plays his part to a tee. The upper echelons of the secret service are also well drawn, in particular John Hurt as Control and Toby Jones as Alleline. The sequence when he berates Cumberbatch is legitimately brilliant.
There is a problem though, and I can’t really go into it without a massive film-ruining spoiler. However to touch on it, Colin Firth should not be in this film, and if he is in this film, then he shouldn’t be in this role. He’s totally miscast, and made me long for someone with the chops of Ian Richardson to show how its done. Aside from Firth, though, the other support is also first rate, including Kathy Burke cast completely against type.
There is a lot to admire here, but it’s a fucking cold film and a fucking unlikeable one. Mrs. Jarv enjoyed it much more than I did, but she had the benefit of not knowing the identity of the mole. I do want to give particular credit to Mark Strong as Prideaux, who puts in an award worthy shift in a particularly unappealing role. The latent homosexuality of the plot is embodied perfectly in his performance, and he is truly, truly excellent whenever he’s on screen.
The big flaw, I think, is texture. The novel is multi-layered and deep, and the series had time to develop it in full. The film does not, so what it tries to do is convey emotion and depth through lots of lingering shots of Oldman swimming in Hampstead pond, or endless close-ups of the minutiae of espionage (the Extra-Strong mints leaping to mind).
I can’t be bothered to go on too much longer. This is an exquisitely written, beautifully shot, superbly acted boring film. I do appreciate that the problem here may well be me, but, seriously, the finale lacks emotional resonance. There is literally no catharsis to what we are watching, and I just personally wanted Smiley to lose it at the mole, just to crack the facade briefly and bring some relief to the audience. This is a film that takes a stiff upper lip to the extreme.
Overall, I’m a bit stumped. This is in a lot of ways an exceptionally well crafted film. It’s also monumentally tedious, however, there’s no point pretending that this isn’t because of my familiarity with the material. Take this as you will, but I honestly wouldn’t bother with it: the story is too complex, and too glacial for a cinema run time. It works supremely well as a novel, and brilliantly as a series, but in a two and a half hour hit? Nope, it’s boring. I give it two Connery Bonds out of 4, and that’s for the non-Firth acting.
Until next time,